10 schools in the state of Texas qualified for the NCAA tournament, and nine of them will be playing their regional matchups in either the lone star state or down I-10 in Louisiana. The one team not playing near home? The Longhorns, who will be heading out to the West Coast for the Long Beach State regional in California beginning on Friday evening.
“We all looked at the projections and we all thought we were going to Houston,” senior center fielder Zane Gurwitz said. “So that’s why when they said us we were all kind of rubbing our eyes just to make sure it was right. But I mean we’re just happy to be in the tournament.”
Most projections had the Longhorns in the Houston regional, facing off against the No. 1 seeded Cougars. However, head coach David Pierce said the selection committee has to move a select few teams out West, and once Baylor, Texas A&M and Iowa were announced for the Houston regional, the Longhorns seemed to be a viable choice to head to the Pacific time zone. With the Longhorns being nearly 1,400 miles from home, Texas ace Morgan Cooper said his team will have to do what they did in Oklahoma City: create their own energy.
“We’re going far away from home, so the energy has got to come from ourselves,” Cooper said. “In the Big 12 tournament, that second game against TCU there was nobody in the stands all the energy came from our dugout… the main thing is bring the energy for us.We’re going to have a few fans, but it’s going to be like a home game for a lot of those teams.”
Although the majority of the team appeared to be a bit surprised by the announcement, the Longhorn clubhouse grew with cheers once their opponent was announced. Texas swept UCLA in a three-game series in Austin during non-conference play, and will face the Bruins to open the regional. Looking forward, if Texas wins its region, it could face Stanford in the super regionals, another team the Longhorns also played earlier this season.
“We know that we can win,” Cooper said. “When we play right we can beat anybody in the country. So once we got over the shock of being in Long Beach, and you see UCLA and we’re matched up with Stanford in the super regional, it’s exciting. We’ve played all those teams, and it’s going to be fun.”
Despite dropping three-out-of-four games to Stanford in early March, the Longhorns still have reason for optimism. Two of those three losses came in one-run games, and the lineup is much more comfortable now compared to the first few weeks of the season. One year after a brutal 25-32 campaign, the Longhorns head to Long Beach for their 58th NCAA regional bid. In head coach David Pierce’s first season with the team, Texas went 37-22, good enough to earn a tournament bid ranked No. 19 in the nation.
“This is a team that was really struggling at the end of last year and came in with a lot of hunger,” Pierce said. “It’s always exciting at this time of the year… So this was a great start for us as a new staff. I think our kids are very excited to compete in the regionals. I think it starts a new era for us to start building that consistency we are looking for.”
The Longhorns fell in the finale of the Big 12 Tournament. But despite the loss, Texas still received important experience heading into regionals. This is a young burnt-orange bunch, and any games on a big stage are valuable heading into the NCAA tournament.
“You look back at the championship game we just played in and it was very, very similar to a super regional game three,” senior first baseman Kacy Clemens said. “There was 10,000 opposing fans… that atmosphere definitely prepared us for what we’re getting our hands into.”
But now, instead of the Big 12 tournament, the Longhorns are in the national spotlight. Texas’ first round matchup with UCLA will be aired on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. and senior Kacy Clemens – who was on the 2014 Longhorn team that made a run to the College World Series – knows this routine all too well.
“You’ve got to show up every single day, every team in the tournament is good now,” Clemens said. “You come out, you wear Texas across your chest loud and proud, you’re a target but you know what? That’s what comes with it, so you’ve got to come out here and show up every single day. If we play how we can play we can beat anybody in the country.”